Movies I Want Everyone to See: Westworld (1973)

This is another entry in the Pre-Star Wars inventory of great science fiction movies of the early 1970s. While the story moves forward in some slightly clunky ways, and there are some premises that defy logic in order to get to the climax, the crux of the concept is exciting and fun. The even more important point is how significant the movie is to future films in the genre. It continues to reverberate even today and makes a visit to this retro futuristic amusement park a necessity for anyone who loves the action and adventure of films from Spielberg and Cameron.

The premise is simple and enticing for anyone with a sense of adventure and a lot of cash. For a $1000 a day, adults can play in a fantasy world called Delos. The park has three distinct themes, Roman World, Medieval World and Westworld. Visitors are fitted out for cosplay and given the opportunity to indulge the pleasures of the times they have chosen. This would include the orgies of Rome, the loose serving wenches of a castle and the prairie angels that  serviced the weary cowpokes with a poke at the end of the trail. In addition there will be gladiatorial contests, sword duels and shootouts on the dusty streets of a western town.

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Richard Benjamin and James Brolin are Peter Martin and John Blane, two affluent businessmen on a vacation designed to get Benjamin’s character over a recent nasty divorce.  John has visited Westworld before and Brolin plays the opening sections of the film as an experienced visitor amused at his friends enthusiasm and his other various trip anxieties. Peter is the naive, gee whiz neophyte who wants to enjoy all the parks amenities but is a little concerned about potential embarrassment and danger. Delos is able to provide such adult fantasy play by loading it’s parks with the latest technology, lifelike robots that are fully functional in all the important ways. The promise is that the fantasy is 100% safe. Famous last words.

Michael Crichton, the writer/director of Westworld, was a well known novelist making his directorial debut. He had written other highly entertaining films before this, including the Science Fiction technology thriller “The Andromeda Strain”. His milieu was technology and many of his well known books feature stories of technology going wrong; “Sphere”, “The Terminal Man”,”Congo”. The most successful movie made from one of his stories is “Jurassic Park” about an amusement park where science is not able to control it’s attractions. Basically, “Jurassic Park” is “Westworld” with dinosaurs.  Everybody probably remembers that great line from Jeff Goldblum’s Ian Malcom, “Yeah, but, John, if The Pirates of the Caribbean breaks down, the pirates don’t eat the tourists”. It was actually the second time such a concept was used by him. Reportedly, Crichton was inspired to write “Westworld” after a visit to Disneyland where he was impressed by the animatronics in “Pirates of the Caribbean”.

The movie would be a voyeuristic dud if they had stuck to the simple premise of the park. In order to create suspense and thrills, the rules of the park will breakdown as the technology does. As a result, that which is supposed to be a naughty rich man’s fantasy turns into his nightmare. The explanation for how things start to go wrong sounds suspiciously like a computer virus; which at that point had not really been thought of. So Crichton’s  work is oddly prescient, although his film language was a little bit crude. In the early part of his career, the film stories often feel a bit clumsy as they try to bring to life a great idea. “Coma” and “Looker” are two other examples of this failing. They each have solid premises but hit some bumps along the way. If you thought it was weirdly convenient that all the technicians  were off the island in “Jurassic Park“, you will notice how it is even more awkward the way  the employees at Delos are handled in the story.

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???????????????????????????????????Peter and John engage in the fantasy play that they paid for. The have a bar fight, spend the night with the ladies of the bordello where they are staying, they even get to do a jailbreak. On multiple occasions they face down the gunslinger character that is their nemesis. The first of those events comes in a traditional barroom standoff. It makes perfect sense. The second confrontation is more visually interesting but it is largely unexplained. The point is that Brolin and Benjamin begin to take their conflicts and the outcomes for granted. There are however some warning signs that foreshadow their danger. In a parallel story set in the Medieval section of the park, a lecherous   customer also sees some faults in the system. His animatronic paramour actually rejects him which goes against all the fantasy he is paying for. When Mel Brooks said “it’s good to be the king” he had apparently not visited Delos Medieval World before.

???????????????????????????????????It takes an hour of the near ninety minute running time to get to the real drama of the story. As everything is being set up we get a backstage view of the technology and some of the problems that the administrators faced. Like John Hammond twenty years later, they are convinced that they can manage their dream despite the overwhelming technology challenges they face.  This is another place where the story telling has to rely on less than smooth technique from the first time director. The guys in lab coats talk out problems instead of visualizing them. The futuristic aspects of the park come down to long hallways filled with inadequate lighting. There are only a couple of moments where we see the robots in their true form as they are being repaired. These moments are handled well on a limited budget but they feel somewhat stilted.

Westworld is a simple story that is told in a basic, sometimes crude manner. It was successful enough to have a sequel, “Futureworld” where the plot is more intricate and the acting and motivation a lot more polished. So if the film is not a masterpiece of cinema technique, why is it a film I want you to see? Well I have already mentioned the story line is the crib sheet for the more successful “Jurassic Park”. There is however a second feature that portends future science fiction lexicon; the unstoppable killing machine. It can’t be argued with, it can’t be bargained with and it will not stop until you are dead. Yul Bryner plays a variation of his “Magnificent Seven” character here. The foreboding shootist with few words all dressed in black.

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As our city slickers once again confront the tin target set up for them to take down, the outcome changes. This is when the movie basically becomes “The Terminator” for the last twenty minutes. Just as Sarah Conner learned, a robot is never finished when you want it to be, our hero struggles repeatedly to finish off and outwit the mechanical man pursuing him. Eleven years before Arnold Schwarzenegger donned the black leather, unholstered his weapon, and chased down his prey, Crichton had his mechanical harbinger of doom do the same thing in almost exactly the same manner. When you watch the machine like swagger of the gunfighter, it is easy to see the future Terminator walking relentlessly toward us. There is an early computerized point of view shot from the gunfighter  that consists of heat signatures and fuzzy pixels. Both of these ideas will be used in future films featuring robots or aliens tracking down their targets.

You should find it easy to ignore the plot loopholes on park safety and the scarcity of assistance toward the end because you will identify with the customers. They came for a good time and they are getting so much more than they bargained for. This film will find ways to give you your monies worth even when it frustrates you with amateur film mistakes. The story concept and the vision of the  wild west as a robot will echo forward to better films that are all well loved by the movie audience, but those films owe a huge debt to Westworld.

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Richard Kirkham is a lifelong movie enthusiast from Southern California. While embracing all genres of film making, he is especially moved to write about and share his memories of movies from his formative years, the glorious 1970s. His personal blog, featuring current film reviews as well as his Summers of the 1970s movie project, can be found at Kirkham A Movie A Day.

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Cold Pursuit

I’m more that two weeks late on this post. Life has gotten in the way of many of my pursuits these days, so it is appropriate that this is the film who’s trail I have let grow cold. If I need to be kept warm in the winter months, I need to see Liam Neeson kill people who deserve to die. It warms my heart to see rough justice since we so often miss true justice in real life.

The set up of the film is not complicated. Neeson’s son is murdered by being given an overdose of heroin. The authorities think he was just another drug user who didn’t know his limits. Neeson’s character’s wife thinks they didn’t know their son at all. It is only as he is about to end his own pain that he discovers what really happened and begins to seek retribution on those responsible. Nels Coxman is not an ex assassin, a CIA agent, or a well trained bodyguard. He is a snowplow driver. His approach is not sophisticated, and the fights are not highly choreographed. He is however methodical and intelligent. Nels simply works his way up the food chain, and fresh fish fall into his lap.

At a certain point in the movie, the deaths start piling up as a consequence of his actions rather than his deliberate execution of offenders. Because his motive is not understood, and the bad guys have no idea why these things are happening, they make assumptions based on their vocation which leads to huge complications. This reminded me a great deal of the 70s films “The Stone Killer” and “The Seven Ups”. Gangland crooks mistake their real enemy and start eating their own.

The nice part about this is that just about every crook who we see get his, earns the death that comes to him. The most effective part of the story other than Neeson is the characterization of the low lives. As each one does something horrible, we just get to start anticipating, “OK, you are next”. The film is based on a Norwegian film “In Order of Disappearance”. In the credits, the character names and actors are all listed and the  names vanish in reverse order in listing. It was a clever capstone to the running tally that we have been given during the film.

Laura Dern appears as Nels wife, but she also vanishes from the movie after barely making it into a couple of scenes. The criminals are all the focus in the film. They all have colorful nick names and while the actors are not household names, they add enough personality to make the movie feel worth a watch. William Forsythe shows up as Nels mob connected estranged brother. He provide a little exposition and a satisfying moment with the main villain, but he has only a little to do with the story.

A woman walked out at the end of the movie proclaiming this was the worst movie she’s ever seen, [clearly she has not seen “Vice”]. I did not think it was a great movie by any stretch of the imagination, but I was entertained…and it kept me warm.

February Blues

This has never been a great month for new releases but there are several films I would like to have seen but simply did not have time to get to. I hope that you have been visiting with the podcast that I co-host, because that has been where most of my movie activity has been in the last few weeks.

As a birthday gift, I was able to choose the films to be considered for MOTM on the Lambcast. The Community selected Tombstone, so I hosted that show and you can catch up with it here:

https://podomatic.com/embed/html5/episode/9008276?autoplay=false

We then embarked on an ambitious year long journey to cover all of the “official” James Bond films before the release next year of “Bond 25”. Loyal readers know of my obsession with 007 and you can hear it being indulged, along with proof that obsession can be genetic here:

https://podomatic.com/embed/html5/episode/9015745?autoplay=false

Frankly, I was so underwhelmed by the Academy Awards nominations this year, that for the first time ever since it began, we skipped out on the Best Picture Showcase. I did however provide some discussion on the awards on the Lambcast Oscar Prediction show. It’s sell by date is rapidly approaching so if you want to hear before the results are announced, you better hurry.

https://podomatic.com/embed/html5/episode/9023299?autoplay=false

Finally, I was the featured guest on the sister podcast on the Lamb, Acting School 101. Our subject for February {The Subjects celebrate a birthday in the month that they are discussed} was Laura Dern. My friend MovieRob hosts the show and we had a nice time talking about this fine actress, in a relatively short show [At least in comparison to the Lambcast].

https://podomatic.com/embed/html5/episode/9006571?autoplay=false

This should bring you up to speed with the rather lazy month’s work. There will be an upcoming podcast on the “How to Train Your Dragon” Franchise coming later this week. I will be hosting and I will put it up so i have one more entry in February at least.

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

Fans of this franchise have nothing to fear from this new film. Although Third episodes are notoriously underwhelming, The “Dragon” franchise has managed to avoid a blunder as they head to the finish line. “The Hidden World” is as well made as it’s predecessors, with the expert talents of Dreamworks Animation team and the director Dean Deblios. The look of these films is consistently amazing, with inventive characters and habitats all colored and detailed like nobody’d business.  The Hidden World of the title turns out to be a relatively minor setting in the bigger picture, but the sequence in which it is featured will be a highlight roll for people’s home theaters because it looks spectacular.

The heart of these movies have always been about the relationship of the two main characters and how they have reflected each other in the passage of time. Here is the line from the first movie that defines the theme of these stories. “I looked at him…and I saw myself.” From the moment that Hiccup acknowledges this, the pair not only bond but they mature together. Toothless and Hiccup both have to move forward with their destinies in this story, each one committing to a bigger role as the leader of their individual group.. There is also the romantic component which requires them to decide on a future that will include a partner.

The two sequences that will have the audience continuing to be pleased with the looks of the films include a flying courtship sequence between Toothless and the newly introduced “Light Fury”. Their trek across a nighttime sky and the use of lightning effects is very beautiful. The second moment is the discovery of the title location. The Hidden World provides a chance for the artists making these movies to show off their color palate and indulge in some creative art design as well. The florescent and neon colors found here will seem familiar to anyone who once had a blacklight poster on their walls.

Maybe the one drawback to the story is the fact that for a second film in a row, the Dragons and people of Berk are threatened by a dragon hunter with the goal of controlling all of the dragons. It ends up hitting some of the same beats as the second film did, with only some variation in character of the villain, a marvelously Teutonic F. Murray Abraham, and his technique and personal goals. I like the fact that the characters are aging in the film. They don’t exactly change their personalities but physically the kids are more mature and the humor stems more from awkward social interaction than physical slapstick (although there is plenty of that still). The parallel stories of Hiccup and Toothless also allow their female counter-parts to have more influence on the story. They may not pass a Bechdel test but they both play major roles in how the story develops.

There is a bit of retconning so as to keep Gerad Butler as Stoic the Vast in the story through flashbacks. It works but it helps if you have not watched the first film immediately before seeing this one. Jay Baruchel continues to be the unlikely voice casting hero of the film. His milquetoast manner of speech and vocal inflections ,that sound adolescent,  are just right for the fledgling leader that Hiccup has to become.  I did find it interesting how fearlessly the movie features the character of Tuffnut when the voice actor from the first two films has been eased out of the role for a variety of reasons. It was not a big deal but I did notice that it had happened.

While I am not sure that a trilogy in this series was necessary, i certainly enjoyed it. It leaves off at a spot that seems to end the need for further films, but it does not foreclose that option entirely. “How to Train Your Dragon The Hidden World” is a satisfying trip to the animated world of dragons and vikings. I think we can dispense with additional dips into the storyline and still feel solid about how complete all of it turned out to be.